As all of London packed wellies, suncream, and — in the case of one particularly prepared friend — a portable personal toilet for the annual pop music pilgrimage to the Glastonbury Festival, my fiancé Cliff and I prepared for a more ancient ritual — the Stonehenge summer solstice.
For 363 days a year, Stonehenge is surrounded by a chain link fence that prevents would-be vandals from harming the stones. Summer and winter solstice are the only two days of the year that visitors are permitted to walk right up to and touch, vibe with, and even summit the massive stones at this prehistoric UNESCO Word Heritage Site. Cliff and I, who were on a 16-month voyage around the globe, agreed that the chance to be there for the solstice — which happened to fall on my birthday — seemed worth passing on Mumford & Sons.
We’d reserved a plot at the super-civilized Stonehenge Campsite months in advance. It was car camping just the way I like it, with Scandinavian-designed bathrooms, hot showers, and an on-site bar. Our neighbors were a motley troop: an British journalist living in Ireland; a psychedelic fairy from the Czech Republic; a fellow American, who was a Ph.D candidate from UC Berkley; and a group of twenty-somethings from a London neighborhood that Hugh Grant’s Love Actually character would label “the dodgy end.”
With a full day to pass before trekking to the Stonehenge monument at dusk, we joined our new friends to explore the village of Glastonbury and the famed Glastonbury Tor. On this perfectly domed green hill crowned with the enchanting ruins of a 14th-century church, mythological lore runs deep. According to legend, this is either King Arthur’s Avalon or the domain of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld and King of Fairies.
Back at camp we took a quick siesta and awaited darkness on the second-longest day of the year. We drank Irish mead, watched our German neighbors perform a ritual that involved balancing in various poses while holding an oversized druid horn, and helped the psychedelic fairy dress up in bindis and more glitter than a troop of burlesque dancers. Finally, dusk settled in. Warm with mead, we were off to the stones.
In my mind’s eye, greeting the solstice was going to involve chanting at sunrise amidst lovely, longhaired, long-robed Druids. Reality was slightly different. The experience was more akin to an 18-and-up rave; our fellow revelers looked like they belonged in a sweaty, strobe-light-filled warehouse. Now, here we were together in the bitterly cold, strobe-light-filled night. The festival began under a near supermoon, but clouds soon rolled in. Light from food and cider stands refracted through the mist, amplifying the tripped-out club feel. The revelers were exceedingly friendly, but to be honest, I began to understand why my friend’s portable personal toilet was a good investment.
In an effort to better ground ourselves in this ancient ritual, Cliff and I made several loops around and through the stones. As we touched the massive boulders and climbed on top of those in the inner circle for a better view (and some much needed breathing room), the energy really was undeniable. Whether that force came from the stones or from the disjointed symphony of drum circles echoing off of them, though, I’ll never be sure.
After hours of communing with the monoliths, our group reunited for the main event: sunrise. Unfortunately — cue every English weather joke ever written — the sun never appeared. It rose, of course, though apparently it hasn’t visibly done so since the summer solstice of 2004. Once cell phone clocks confirmed that the sun was indeed above the horizon, however, we retreated to camp for a midsummer’s nap. Rested and recovered, we returned to the scene of the crime to survey the damage.
In what can only be described as a minor miracle, Stonehenge was spotless. The stones were still standing, the grass was fresh and springy, and the protective fence that had been conspicuously missing the night before was back up, looking as if it had never left its post.
This brisk British order only confounded my feelings of otherworldliness from the night before. Suffice it to say that the Stonehenge summer solstice I experienced wasn’t what it might have been 5,000 years ago. But in a country where nearly a quarter million modern Brits self-identify as Pagans, it was a fascinating contemporary British experience — if not a pure Druid one. And who knows, maybe we’ll have more luck seeing the sun rise at a future Stonehenge winter solstice. Maybe we’ll even have the foresight to bring our own portable personal toilet.
All images by Natalie Purbrick.